I admit it: I don’t really “get” New York City. I’ve been there of course, visiting friends, etc. I’ve seen the Met, the village, the park, the restaurants, the bridges, the endless highway gridlock, the claustrophobic streets, the inescapable smells… you know, the whole experience. And I didn’t really like it! Maybe I’m a country critter at heart, but even other cities I’ve seen and lived in have never felt so fundamentally alienating as New York.
Maybe it’s that it feels like the Seat of Capitalism, the raw wound in spacetime from which demonic robber-barons and investment bankers constantly pour. Everyone seems stressed and rushed, and it’s hard not to feel that energy seeping into myself when I’m there. And the extraordinary real estate prices – and the waves of gentrification that accompany them – are kind of staggering to witness. It’s a place where the war against hipsters and yuppies is going… especially poorly.
Octopus Pie, like its name implies, is a slice-of-This-American-Life story about roommates Eve and Hanna just trying to make it through the week in this cutthroat city. Wait, no, sorry, the name actually has nothing to do with that and makes no sense. My mistake. Eve is the daughter of divorced Chinese immigrants and works at an organic grocery store, and Hanna, whose parents live upstate, is a fucking loser stoner slash successful small business owner. Together they befriend assholes, party with assholes, get served coffee by assholes, go to art shows with assholes, and try not to become assholes themselves while dealing with the stress of living in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn, the beating heart of Brooklyn culture, is a city on the bleeding edge of shifts in the Brooklyn way of life. At least that’s my main takeaway from reading Octopus Pie: that it’s a place so self-important it thinks itself the center of the world, the font from which all authenticity flows, the Kingdom of Cool. And having recently reread the whole story to date, I still have no idea if that’s an idea that Gran is mocking or upholding! In either case, the question remains: in this place ruled by irony, sarcasm and hipsters, can terminally-sincere Eve survive?
Too genuine for most of her peers, Eve is chronically isolated and embittered, constantly struggling to find intimacy. And when her mom sets her up with a new roommate, her friend Hanna (from preschool), it’s possible that she has found it. She just has to get over her immediate dislike of Hanna’s lackadaisical attitude towards life, indoor cannabis use, and dirty dishes first. What seems early on like an odd-couple comedy setup actually develops into a close, complementary friendship that forms the beating heart of Octopus Pie’s story. And y’all know what a sucker I am for stories about relationships between women.
From that first connection, other characters are brought into the fold over the years, bringing their own baggage, drama, and soul. Even a number of characters who are introduced for a joke end up staying on and growing into real-seeming people with their own desires, struggles, successes and mistakes. I usually only go in for fantasy and scifi crap, as you well know, but even though there’s a good deal of magical-realism in OP, the thing that kept me reading for all that time was the mundane but beautifully depicted lives of these characters. It’s kind of an emotional masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Octopus Pie is also a satire. It’s stuffed to the gills with digs at the general insincerity and bullshit culture of the modern Big Apple. On like every page, someone’s spewing some kind of New-York-Times-Magazine-buzzword-laden nonsense, straw social justice arguments, or insufferable hipster condescension. Eve, of course, falls into the Only Sane Man role, championing real human connection and emotional honesty in the face of overwhelming opposition, and usually losing. These sequences usually interrupt the flow of the actual story that I actually want to read, so frankly, it’s kind of tedious.
The problem with satirizing insincerity is that it’s too meta! Satire itself is insincere, so it’s impossible to decypher Gran’s message: is Eve right or wrong? Is gentrification good or bad? Does racism exist or not? Is this comic deliberately ironic as a jab at itself, or is the true irony that it’s mocking irony without realizing that it’s using irony to do so?? My head hurts.
Worst, Gran’s tendency to use her characters as mouthpieces for her satire runs roughshod over all the time that she spends lovingly crafting and growing these characters into three-dimensional people. It’s like some sort of cynical comedian’s ghost randomly possessing your friends and loved ones to spout one-liners about Twitter. And the topical humor doesn’t stop there! Gran’s positioning of Octopus Pie on the cutting edge of modern (New York) cultural shifts means there’s constant commentary on things that won’t be interesting or even remembered in one or two years. Topical and referential jokes are a trap that many humorists fall into, but they’re rarely funny at the time, and their comedic currency only drops over the years as people stop getting the reference. Leave it to the political cartoons, folks.
To top it off, Octopus Pie’s politics kind of… suck. The Monkey’s Paw twist on the plotline where Eve tries to get people to quit their unpaid internships and demand real jobs is that after she succeeds, everything goes out of business, leaving her standing, horrified, on a deserted street like the ending to a Twilight Zone episode written by Ayn Rand. What message can we take away from that except that we should accept the capitalist demand to work for free? Where’s the worker solidarity? Come on.
There’s more: Marigold cutting of her dreadlocks not out of remorse for her cultural appropriation, but grief over a breakup; Park asserting that racism plays no part in the desexualization of East Asian men; Hanna discounting the importance of Chinese immigrant culture in the face of gentrification; periodic one-off pages where whatever the main cast is doing gets interrupted by an old obnoxious liberal dude yelling about climate change or investment bankers. Spread out over the course of the comic, these moments are easy to look past, but condensed together they start to look downright objectivist.
When I read Octopus Pie for years, it was because of the incredible characters, their rich inner lives, and their silly, often quite funny adventures. When I stopped reading in 2011, it was because I was sick of the comic’s relentless cynicism and discordant libertarianism. I picked it up again to catch the new (extremely cute!!) gay storyline, but I don’t foresee myself sticking with it for long. Octopus Pie is a gorgeous, touching story about intimacy and isolation, the fears that hold us back and the fears that protect us, and the simultaneous temptations of radical change and the status quo. It’s also a supremely irritating cultural commentary that I wish would just shut the fuck up sometimes.
Final verdict: If you don’t get New York, you probably won’t get this comic either. But there’s still some great pathos to enjoy, as long as you’re not put off by bad politics.